Author Talks: What does it mean to be a good middle manager?

| Interview

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Lucia Rahilly chats with McKinsey partners Emily Field and Bryan Hancock, as well as senior partner Bill Schaninger, about their new book, Power to the Middle: Why Managers Hold the Keys to the Future of Work (Harvard Business Review Press, July 18, 2023). The authors discuss the critical impact of middle management in vision creation, coaching, and skill development, and share the often-overlooked role that middle managers play in promoting connectivity and creativity across organizations. An edited version of the conversation follows.

What problem were you trying to solve with this book?

Emily Field: When we wrote this book, we were really thinking about leaders and the fact that it’s their job to take accountability for developing managers. This book is for managers as they think about their own development paths and what they want to achieve. This book is also for aspiring managers. Our hope is that when you read the stories, you can find yourself in them.

Bryan Hancock: The problem we were trying to solve in writing this book is really getting people to understand the value of the manager, and helping to empower managers to do what they’re uniquely suited to do. Managers are key in two parts of what makes businesses work: one, they’re critical for delivering for their people, for coaching them, for developing them, for making sure that those people have the soft skills that are increasingly required in a world where we’re surrounded by automation and automated tools. It’s those human skills that are most important and where managers are most important. Two, managers are also critical for figuring out value creation. The markets are changing fast, as are all of the ways we can collaborate internally and externally. How we organize to create value is more complex now than it has ever been.

Bill Schaninger: How do we ensure that every person who’s in a people leadership role is capable of playing all these roles, of being a navigator, being a connector, helping people make sense of their work, really understanding how it’s changing, really understanding what skills need to be developed?

Every person is led by someone. We know that the relationship with the boss is the most important relationship at work. For corporations, it matters massively to the bottom line, on the order of $2 billion for a stereotypical Fortune 500 company. If you go from being led poorly to being led well throughout the organization, it doesn’t take very long for that $2 billion to grow incredibly just by saying, “If we run the place better, it matters for everyone.”

What is a middle manager?

Bryan Hancock: The way we’ve defined it for this book is “A middle manager is somebody who has managers who sit below them and managers who sit above them.” So they are there “in the middle” of the organization, not necessarily leading people day-to-day but leading teams. The managers are, in some ways, the ones who are in the middle.

Bill Schaninger: We said that anyone who is below the executives but above the frontline employees is a people leader.

Emily Field: I consider myself to be a middle manager when I think about the fact that—even though I don’t have 100 direct reports and I don’t have a boss, technically—I am responsible for translating senior-leadership visions down to the actual work to be done for my teams, who execute it.

‘A middle manager is somebody who has managers who sit below them and managers who sit above them.’ So they are there ‘in the middle’ of the organization, not necessarily leading people day-to-day but leading teams.

Bryan Hancock

What’s the player–coach model of middle management?

Bill Schaninger: It’s situations where the person was probably a very, very good individual contributor. You’ll often see, for example, general counsel or assistant general counsels whose own personal skills are still really important, but then we need them to coach up the others.

The challenge is that those people likely got promoted because of their individual skills and their own technical acumen. The extent to which they were ever held to account to develop their leadership skills is pretty variable. In many cases, you see middle managers who are playing their strength. “Oh, I’ll take it. I’ll do this work. You can’t—either you do it just like me or you’re not good enough.”

Bryan Hancock: There are places where player–coaches work well, such as a relatively small team that doesn’t have a lot of people who actually need to be managed and where the player–coach actually has deep expertise that is relevant in the context of that team.

It starts to break down when a player–coach’s player responsibility is well over half of your time. If you’re coaching a team of seven, ten, 15 people, at that point, you don’t have time in your day to do one-on-ones while also delivering on your individual responsibilities.

We should think of our managers being managers, and make sure that they can fulfill that people-management obligation first, before we fill up the rest of their plate.

Are middle managers set up for success with respect to talent management?

Bryan Hancock: No, middle managers are not set up well for the current reality. A recent survey we conducted revealed that middle managers are spending less than a third of their time on people management.

Over the past 20 years, managers have increasingly been asked—and increasingly valued—not for their management but for their individual-contributor work. And given the complexities of the future of work, we need to flip that around. We need to get managers back to managing.

By and large, managers have not been given the training to be good people managers. They’re not necessarily being promoted because of their management capabilities; they’re being promoted because they were really, really good at what they did. And as they become more senior, as they take on more of the middle management roles, excellence in what they did becomes less important.

Excellence in coaching, developing people, making connections across the organization, demonstrating creativity, connectivity—all of those things become more important. What we need to do is to have organizations, for one thing, scan for who good managers could be. Let’s not just promote people because they were good at what they did; let’s promote people because of what makes great managers.

Over the past 20 years, managers have increasingly been asked—and increasingly valued—not for their management but for their individual-contributor work. And given the complexities of the future of work, we need to flip that around. We need to get managers back to managing.

Bryan Hancock

The second thing they need to do is reward people who are really good at what they do but shouldn’t be managers. For many organizations, to be successful, to be seen as doing well, to progress through your career, you have to pick up people management.

We should create career tracks where you can be a really, really good individual contributor and succeed and be rewarded for that without going into management. Keeping those separate is key.

Emily Field: People should be celebrated for moving up, down, and across, and thinking about different tours of duty where they move within an organization. They get different experiences, they learn, and they add value based on what gives them energy. What gives somebody energy at one time may not be what gives them energy forever. Having that flexibility within an organization is so important to really create experiences that are valued by employees.

What are some of the obstacles middle managers face?

Emily Field: The number-one thing that we hear about is organizational bureaucracy. It’s just really hard to get work done. Another one that we hear about so often is burnout and the fact that managers are not infallible, and they haven’t had the time to put their own oxygen masks on and to really take care of themselves. As a result, they are suffering, and their teams suffer too.

Bryan Hancock: One of the stereotypes that is sometimes true in some organizations is that middle managers are a “permafrost” layer. Resistant to change, nothing’s able to get through. We do have an example from a government client that we worked with, where we did an organizational health study. We were looking at a pretty radical change in the external context that was going to fundamentally change how this government agency met its mission. We did the survey and a “gallery walk.” After the survey was complete, we put the results on posters around the room for the senior leaders of the organization to walk around and view.

We put up the scores by level of the organization. A dark blue layer indicates the worst scores, which was the least belief in the changes that were happening. That dark blue layer was the managers. The front line was super excited by the direction, the change, and the feeling that things were actually happening. The senior levels of the organization also understood the changing mission context and why it was important for them to change.

The middle layer’s view—expressed through the surveys and interviews—was, “We’ve been here a while; this too shall pass. We’ll keep doing what we’re doing until it’s time for us to retire.” One last component of this gallery walk was a word cloud. We asked all the employees at the agency to put together words that described the agency.

The leader of the agency walks up to the word cloud, and said, “Fire? What does fire have to do with our organization?” Then looks again and said, “Oh, dumpster. In a different part of the word cloud, it’s ‘dumpster fire. OK. I got it.”

Bill Schaninger: On one hand, they have what their job has been created to be: largely what’s been called “strategic planning.” But it really is tactical and/or operational planning. Someone else has done the strategy. Now they’re making plans to do plans, in many cases doing reports, doing PowerPoint decks, administrivia, feeding the beast, if you will, of papers and forms and bits and bobs of information that the machine needs.

But when you ask them, and we did, “What do you think really has impact?,” they thought that some planning was useful, but they really thought that spending time and developing talent was going to be really important. Then we asked, “What are you evaluated on? Or what are you rewarded for?” Talent was not a big part of that.

Bryan Hancock: What we’re seeing is that the pandemic really increased the amount of time managers needed to spend on their people. Their people were increasingly burned out and they were working from multiple locations. The role of the manager, in terms of management, went up.

But organizations didn’t get rid of the administrative tasks, didn’t get rid of the bureaucracy, and didn’t get rid of the individual-contributor tasks. So that resulted in managers being even more burned out.

What is administrivia?

Emily Field: Administrivia is all of the tasks that just layer on top of each other.

Bill Schaninger: In plain language, administrivia means too much process, too much paperwork, too many meetings, and too much performance by attendance.

Bryan Hancock: I was working with a healthcare organization where, in any given week, the middle managers—the people responsible for some of their sites and locations—had to filter through 300-plus requests from headquarters. So the managers were spending their time saying, “Which of these forms do I need to fill out showing that I have followed the rollout of this new program, or that new program, or the other pieces?”

It was just overwhelming to the individual. Because to the manager, it wasn’t seen as something that was driving near-term performance. Nor was it seen as something that was helping their people. They were seen as checkers on whether another corporate initiative was being implemented to the fullest extent in their organization. The organization said, “Stop, we need to reorient. Instead of orienting around the dozens of individual teams going around headquarters, why don’t we reorient around the manager?”

In plain language, administrivia means too much process, too much paperwork, too many meetings, and too much performance by attendance.

Bill Schaninger

What they found is that by reorienting regarding the manager, they were able to eliminate a lot of the administrivia tasks and turn them into—rather than a checklist the manager sent back—managers sending back feedback about how the new products were or were not helping them in their organization.

Emily Field: And no single work form or task is going to break a manager. But it’s the layering of those tasks, the cumulative effect, that, frankly, takes so much time.

What has hybrid work done to middle managers?

Emily Field: I’ll tell the story of two different managers in the same business unit. A CEO said, “Everyone must go back to the office 40 hours a week.” One manager—a technical engineer who had grown up within the organization—passed that message along to his team.

“Everyone has to be in the office 40 hours a week. Let’s go.” One of his team members, who was quite literal, said, “I’m in the field three days next week. How do I hit my 40 hours?” The technical manager said, “Hold on. I’ve got to go back to leadership and ask.” Another manager on the same team saw the same in-office edict and she told her team, “I know you’re focused on driving outcomes. I know you’re in market right now. Let’s get together in the office when it makes sense, collaborate, and spend time together. And let’s focus on doing what’s right.” Two managers, same business unit, but completely different perspectives.

The technical product manager was kind of a faucet; he took the top-down edict and just said, “Team, go do,” with no context and no translation layer. The other manager, she was almost a sieve. She added that translation and sense-making layer to say, “That top-down edict doesn’t work for my team and the outcomes and impact that they’re accountable for delivering. Let’s do what's right.”

What’s not surprising about these two managers is that the second manager, the translator: people want to work for her. And many of the folks from that technical team have actually moved on to work with that manager. People are voting with their feet.

Bill Schaninger: How do you do basic person-to-person leadership? Are you OK? Over a virtual call, it looked like you were a little harried. You’ve had your camera off for ten days. Is there anything we can do for you?

“Pull back,” says HR. “Pull back,” say the lawyers. Don’t get involved in personal things. When, at the same time, you have employees who are truly struggling and the managers themselves struggling saying, “I don’t even know if I can or want to lean into this.”

Bryan Hancock: There’s a difference between being a decent human being and being invasive. Being a decent human being means recognizing when something’s not right, following up, checking, and making sure somebody is doing OK. Then, if things aren’t OK, having the resources to do more than say, “Anyway, back to work,” and instead say, “We’ve got real programs that we can help direct you to. We’ve got people in HR who really know this stuff well. We’ve got things that, if it’s more than just a call with HR, something that’s more serious, here are the resources.”

Emily Field: Managers have to be very intentional. They have to make the time, have the recurring one-on-one meetings, and ask people, “What are you working on? What are your goals? What are the things that you want to get better at? And, importantly, what gives you energy? What do you care about?”

Managers have to be very intentional. They have to make the time, have the recurring one-on-one meetings, and ask people, ‘What are you working on? What are your goals? What are the things that you want to get better at? And, importantly, what gives you energy? What do you care about?’

Emily Field

That needs to be not once a year and then saying, “Done,” as part of a performance conversation but actually having that recurring conversation, because that’s how you build the relationship. It’s also how you help people explore things that maybe they didn’t even know they were interested in.

What can middle managers do to help build resilience?

Emily Field: If we think about the pandemic, for example, and this idea of people suddenly working from home, that’s a top-down directive, but how do you actually make it happen? How did organizations keep closing the books on time and continue producing results for customers? It came down to the managers. When you really think about it, if you invest in these managers, you are able to move mountains. It’s so important, because if we think about managers, in many cases they’re individuals who are burned out themselves.

Middle managers are having their own well-being challenges. Middle managers have had so much piled onto them. Their development, their well-being, has often been an afterthought. We have to make up for it, because when we think about creating resilient organizations, resiliency starts with having a really strong middle management team that’s able to really drive.

Bryan Hancock: I think we’re seeing some leaders looking at the current environment as an opportunity to rethink how the organization works, make it work faster, make it work better. Those leaders are saying, “The manager is core to this. As we’re freeing up capacity across the organization, are we reinvesting some of that capacity in our leaders so that they actually have time to manage, lead, and be with their people?”

Middle managers have had so much piled onto them. Their development, their well-being, has often been an afterthought. We have to make up for it, because when we think about creating resilient organizations, resiliency starts with having a really strong middle management team that’s able to really drive.

Emily Field

Emily Field: Especially as we think about talent shortages, skill gaps, and also equity and inclusion, it’s so important to think about people leadership. I would challenge leaders to say, “We can’t afford not to.” We have to make sure that managers are focused on one of their most critical responsibilities, and that’s people leadership.

Describe middle-management challenges in hypergrowth firms.

Emily Field: As we think about hypergrowth, what happened in many cases is just this absolute mushrooming of organizations where people got promoted because they were awesome individual contributors. For example, they were deeply skilled engineers who were rock stars at their individual craft, and then got promoted. But they weren’t developed. Maybe they didn’t want to be managers and, ultimately, they didn’t succeed. In talking with organizations, what I’ve consistently heard can be exemplified by a chief technology officer who said, “My biggest regret is promoting rock star technical talent to be managers. They didn’t want it. They didn’t stay. Ultimately, they would have been better left as individual contributors.” The other issue is this idea of building organizations so quickly that you haven’t really thought through the structure, roles, and responsibilities. You haven’t been able to make sure that the work to be done makes sense and is guided by a clear set of principles and values.

Bryan Hancock: Another example of a hypergrowth company is one that provides software to hospitals to help them do their day-to-day operations better. Their software was so successful that they couldn’t reach all of the academic medical centers, the other medical centers, fast enough with this technology that is really enabling them to increase their capacity and increase their ability to serve more patients in a high-quality way.

They recognized that managers are critically important in helping to scale and in helping to make sure that, “Not only are we reaching all these organizations, but we’re doing it with the same skill, we’re doing it with the same empathy, and we’re doing it with the all the human parts.” They also recognized, “As we’re scaling, we need to think about who we’re making managers. We need to think about how we’re training our managers. We need to think deliberately about the development of our people. Because while we were smaller and serving a few institutions, it was easy for the founding team to work together.”

But as they started to scale, they needed managers to make sure that they were developing the new folks. They needed managers to make sure that the company was holding on to the same values and the same ways of working. The way to do that is through spending time coaching, feedback, apprenticing, and making sure that the whole team has the same people skills that the initial team had when they got going.

Managers are critical in hypergrowth organizations. They’re also new in hypergrowth organizations. It’s one of the places where you’ve got the opportunity, from the get-go, to organize managers in a way that they have the time and the space to truly manage.

Why would anyone want to be a middle manager?

Bryan Hancock: No one wants to grow up to be a middle manager, but in very few organizations is the actual title “middle manager.” In many organizations the title is director of “blank” or senior manager of “blank.” They’ve got roles and titles that aren’t tied to being in the middle. What we need is a language to talk about these managers, these leaders, what they do for their people. Maybe even calling them people managers helps to elevate the people and management side of the role. Maybe toning down a little bit about that being in the middle.

Emily Field: Let’s be honest, it’s a tough job. But it also can be an incredibly rewarding job if the work that the manager is doing is connected to their purpose and passion. Think about it as getting to lead teams on a common mission. That’s energizing. Getting to drive results, getting to do more than they thought was possible. That’s a pretty exciting value proposition for a middle manager.

Bill Schaninger: This sounds almost cliché, but I do think it’s people who, first and foremost, love the work and love the people. For those who want to do it, it’s because they love what they’re doing. They love the work.

Bryan Hancock: I had a client who wanted to stay in middle management as long as he possibly could. He felt like the middle-management role was the one that let him spend time developing people, which is what he loved. It also let him get deep enough in the content to understand which other people across the organization he needed to pull in.

He recognized that, as soon as he was promoted vice president or, if he kept on track, to senior vice president, he wouldn’t be in meetings coaching people. He’d be in discussions that were pretty far removed from the day-to-day operations, where he wanted to be. That’s a good example of somebody who would want to be a middle manager forever.

How should leaders incentivize middle managers?

Emily Field: This idea of how you think about constantly learning, constantly having new opportunities, bigger or different programs to lead, and recognizing people accordingly is how. That means making sure that you’re empowering managers to drive the outcomes for which they’re responsible, instead of saying, “Let’s bog our managers down with to-dos and administration.”

Bill Schaninger: One way to think about incentivizing middle managers to stay is to make it really clear to them that what they do matters so much. What they do is related to talent and customers, and the continuity of the organization, not individual metrics or KPIs or the things that you do where you’re feeding the beast, through process and paperwork.

Most appraisal systems, performance management systems, are around some metrics that actually aren’t very much related to what we’re talking about. So if you were going to ask someone to stay, you’d have to say to them, “You’re not being sidelined. You’re not being capped out on comp. You’re not going to be viewed as not having potential.” All these major signaling devices that people get from an organization that say, are you valued or not?

But what if you stay in a place for two years, four years, six years? Does that mean you don’t have potential? Or does that mean that it was your best use? In many cases, both the formal incentives and the signaling devices have to change to say, “This is a great spot for you, and you’re continuing to get better and contributing more.”

In many cases, both the formal incentives and the signaling devices have to change to say, ‘This is a great spot for you, and you’re continuing to get better and contributing more.’

Bill Schaninger

Bryan Hancock: The first step people need to do, if they want to keep great middle managers in their role, is make the role sustainable. Doing that means taking away the administrivia, automating what can be automated, and making the manager focus on people. Once you get a role that’s focused on people, the next thing you have to do is make sure that managers have some autonomy in how they actually lead their teams. Managers feel fulfilled when they feel like they’re able to best meet the needs of their team while also delivering results.

The last thing to do is reward them. Rewards can be in titles. You don’t have to make them an officer, but recognize their contributions as a great manager. Maybe think about paying them based on how good they are on the people management side. We know that’s critical to performance, so maybe we consider that, as well. But the main things here are getting rid of the administrivia and letting them manage.

What surprised you most in researching or writing this book?

Emily Field: What surprised me most was how personal it was. It became an exploration of my own people leadership style, my aspirations, and my manager journey. I hold myself to account of everything we talk about in the book, and my team members know that. It became so personal because as much as I wanted to create the playbook of what it means to be a good manager, I also want to be a great leader.

Bill Schaninger: I think what surprised me the most, when we were really poring over the research and the data had come back, was just how bad things have gotten. We’ve had all these pop culture references that were sort of mocking and derisive: cartoons, movies, and TV shows. But I didn’t fully appreciate how that was a lived experience of so many people. When you just think about leverage and the leveraged model, that meant that every one of those leaders had a whole lot of people they were leading.

Some of those people were leading people, and the only role model they had was those people. This ended up becoming maybe the best example of a negative derivative. We had unloved, undertrained, undersupported, and poorly selected leaders for multiple decades.

And it took COVID and the massive phenomenon of the Great Attrition to say, “Oh, hold on, we actually have to draw a line in this and stop and say, what can we do differently here?” Because everywhere we saw that the middle manager was a critical role to fixing a problem, the middle manager with the problem, in many cases, was the one causing it. That gave me hope that we could do something about it. Yet it also made me a bit sad that it had gotten this bad.

Bryan Hancock: I think what surprised me most in researching and writing the book is the resonance that this topic has with pretty much everybody we talk to. As soon as we start to talk about the importance of the middle managers—whether they’re senior leaders or they’re middle managers themselves—everybody says, “Yes! And let me tell you . . .” The degree to which this is resonating with everybody is something that has surprised me the most.

Watch the full interview

Author Talks

Visit Author Talks to see the full series.

Explore a career with us